This post has been updated. See the note below for details.
REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Sixteen boys waited on a dusty football field in Hamar Weyne district of Mogadishu, Somalia, to play a match. They had put their names down the day before and expected another team would turn up to play.
Instead, a group of militants drove up on that December day in 2010. They were from the Al Shabab organization, linked with Al Qaeda and known for recruiting child soldiers as cannon fodder.
"They were armed with AK-47's and told us that playing football was not helpful and they would turn us into jihadis. They took 16 of us between the ages of 10 and 16," one 14-year-old Mogadishu boy told Human Rights Watch.
The rights group released a report Monday on the forced recruitment of children in Somalia ahead of an international conference on the conflict in London on Thursday. The report says all parties in Somalia's long war have pressed children into the fight and that recruitment has increased in recent years. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has reported that about 2,000 children were forced to fight in 2010 alone.
"They were sent to the front lines or forced to act as porters, spies and suicide bombers. Children have been injured, maimed and killed," the Human Rights Watch report said. "In Al Shabab-controlled areas, there was virtually nowhere that children could be assured of their safety."
Al Shabab took children from schools, playing fields, parks and their own homes. Those who refused were killed.
"I tried to refuse but I couldn't," another 14-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch. "I just had to go with them. If you refuse, maybe sometimes they come and kill you or harm you, so I just went with them.
"One of my friends who was older than me, they came and started with him, the same as they did to me, and he refused and they left him," the boy said. "But another day they found him on the street and shot him."
The names of the boy and other witnesses were not revealed for their protection.
A 13-year-old girl from the town of El Ashabiya said her 16-year-old brother's head was left beside the family home after he refused to fight. "Al Shabab said to my elder brother, 'Come with us,' " she said. "He refused and they beheaded him."
One child told the group that whenever Al Shabab came to his school to force children to fight, boys would "stampede and scramble out of windows, jumping from second- and third-floor windows and landing on top of each other in desperate bids to escape."
Parents or teachers who tried to prevent Al Shabab from taking children were often shot, according to witnesses cited in the report.
At the training camps, boys who showed any sign of weakness could be punished. Another 14-year-old boy said the child trainees had to do push-ups and walk on their knees for hours.
"I was saying, 'I am exhausted, I can't do anymore,' and they cut me with a big knife -- a big knife that you use to slaughter animals," he told Human Rights Watch.
Those who tried to run away were often executed. One boy saw the executions of five of the 15 children who were abducted from his primary school in Mogadishu.
"The five never agreed to join Al Shabab and hid," he said. The militants "brought them and paraded them in front of us and shot them. They were 10, 14, 15, 16, and 17 years old."
From the training camps, children were sent to the front lines of the battle against forces of Somalia's Transitional Federal Government and the allied African Union, the report says.
"Then they took us to fight," said a 15-year-old boy. "We were defeated. Out of all my classmates, about 100 boys, only two of us escaped. The rest were killed."
"The children all died and the bigger soldiers ran away," he said.
When a child died in battle, a mother was expected to celebrate, not mourn. One woman, married to an Al Shabab rebel, said he took her 10-year-old son to war, where the boy died. Her husband later told her he was pleased the child died a martyr.
"He showed me the footage he took of my son being killed in the war. His blood. His body. I cried," the woman said.
[Updated 12:22 p.m. Feb. 23: At Thursday's conference in London, meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague called Somalia the “world’s worst failed state,” while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the troubled nation needed to speed the transition to political stability.
“The Transitional Federal Government was always meant to be just that: transitional,” Clinton noted. “And it is past time for that transition to occur and for Somalia to have a stable government.”
A final communique from the meeting pledged support efforts to address the symptoms of Somalia’s instability: famine, refugees, piracy, and terrorism. But the statement noted that the international community would not back extending the 7-year-old transitional government’s mandate beyond the current timetable of Aug. 20.]
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Somali schoolchildren, boys on the left and girls on the right, sit at their desks Tuesday during a lesson in the town of Dhobley, currently under the control of Kenyan military and Somali government forces. A Human Rights Group report released this week details the forced recruitment of children to fight in Somalia's ongoing war. Credit: Ben Curtis / Associated Press